parenting: thinking

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Be aware of the language you use. Raise emotionally intelligent children. Facilitate toilet learning. Be thoughtful about television and dvds. Discipline inclusively. Deal with tough issues. Promote healthy, happy sibling relationships. Does your child know what to do if he gets lost? When your child is angry with you.


Be aware of the language you use.

Language awareness is one of the main keys of parenting.  Children hear everything we say, tend to repeat it at times, and will learn what we say and how we say it.  They imitate words, phrases, and tone.

The way you speak to your children is the way they will speak to other children (friends, siblings) and eventually the way they speak to you.  The way you talk about your in-laws or your parents will influence your children’s relationship with them, and later their relationship with you.

This is a challenge because parenting taps all our emotions, expectations for ourselves and our children, as well as being a huge logistical project.  Getting children ready for school and meeting all their emotional and developmental needs is a triple challenge.  We have to “train” for those moments when we are under pressure.

Learn the phrase: what do you think?
Let children think more while you talk less.  Almost every time I hear a question from a child I wait, and then if the child stops talking, I ask, “What do you think?”  which provides me with important information—what the child thinks, and allows me to use that as a departure point to question more or to confirm, or to offer up a different explanation.  For example:

Child: Mommy, how did I get inside you?
Me: What do you think?
Child: Did you eat me?

After that I said, “No, I didn’t eat you!” and I’m sure I was smiling.  “Daddy and I made you together.”  And that was the end of the conversation, the first time.

Always start with “What do you think?” and then answer exactly the question you are asked.  Usually children press for more information slowly—our minds think a few questions ahead—if your child continues to question, continue to answer, simply.

When talking about babies, we had about three conversations until we got to the “Daddy put his penis into mommy’s vagina” part.  After that there’s been a break-- eventually, she’ll ask more, as will your child, but for now, we’re good.

Big Girl and Big Boy
Take a good look at your two, three, four, five year old—and then a look around at the world—your child is not big!  He or she is pretty little.  Feeling strong and confident are traits that can be supported by acknowledging the real things they do all the time:

“You learned how to peel a clementine!”
“Look—you can reach the elevator button now!”
“That’s the first time I’ve seen you climb up the slide.”
“You saw she was hungry and you shared your crackers.”

This gives your child accurate information about the things she is doing, and helps her mark the differences as she ages and matures.

Why do I suggest avoiding “big boy” & “big girl”?  The correlation of behavior to age isn’t accurate.  One 4 year old may be ready for things another 4 year old isn’t—and for the rest of their lives we want them to do things that are right to do because they are right—not because they turn a certain age. 

This also helps you and your child have expectations for individuals— if your child’s friend or sibling is ready for things at a different age, which is likely, it can be taken at face value.

Try to notice how you use the word “okay”—is it tacked on to the end of your sentences when you talk with your child(ren)?  As if you are asking a question?  “I’m going to run your bath now, okay?” sounds different to a child than, “I’m going to run the bath now,” and both pale in comparison to, “It’s time for bath, do you want to use the bath toys from the kitchen or the special bubbles?”

Using Die and Kill Metaphorically
Think about how you use the word “die” and “kill” and other death related words, and push yourself to use them in sentences with their true meaning.  A three or four year old hears something like, “I could kill for that dress!”  or “That dress is to die for!” or “He should be shot for that!”  and has to merge that usage with the real one.  You can take great care to find ways to react without using common expressions that send an unintended message.

Be Truthful

Are you honest?  All the time?  Our children see and hear most things we do, and then try out that behavior.  We can all remember a time when our children imitated an adult behavior.  We probably laughed!  When a child says something that isn’t “true”, to make someone feel better, or cover up something that he knows will be upsetting—this can be the same imitation of adult behavior.   We can upset, but the phone rings and we answer with a happy tone and say, “Oh, I’m fine!” and while subtle to us, it’s very noticeable to a child.  Something bigger—telling someone you liked something your kids heard you talk about not liking, or embellishing (as my husband likes to do!) can be confusing.  Especially when our response to that behavior in a child is negative.

Being truthful with yourself is also really helpful.  When you feel centered and honest, you feel free.

Say what you mean and mean what you say
When you hear a parent or caregiver saying “I’m leaving now—are you coming or not?”  you know the adult isn’t going to leave, and while the toddler probably knows this too, he or she might not be entirely sure.  Adults can use very convincing tones of voice when they are fed up.    Words like, “I’m going,” or, “Stop hanging all over me and go play” can sound harsh to kids.  The message they get is, I’m not always wanted. Children who hear words like this can lose confidence, and in turn, become more clingy or testing in the future.  Saying things like, “We need to leave-- I can’t leave without you,” and “I see you need some mom/dad time now” make it clear to your child that you are there for them.


Raise emotionally intelligent children.

Emotional Intelligence—some researchers think this is the key to happiness and success!  People who are able to identify their own feelings and the feelings of others, appraise the situation and take appropriate action, are happier.


  • We can help ourselves and our children:
  • Identify our own emotions, as well as what others are feeling
  • Understanding these feelings and emotions
  • Use these and other emotions to move forward and work through them and problem solve in certain cases
  • Learn how to self-regulate our feelings

Some words that get a lot of use with kids are: nice, good, bad and sad. Try to use other, more specific words to help your child understand and name her emotions.


Facilitate toilet learning.

I prefer to use toilet learning as it implies a learning process—it’s a big deal for a child to move from diapers to the toilet, and it’s a concrete “giving up” of a diaper, something every child has had on since birth.  And I say facilitate because, no matter what, your child is the one who uses the potty.

Specifically, you can


  • Pee and poop in front of your child
  • Use positive language to describe what’s happening (avoid saying: it smells, etc.)
  • Use correct terms for your child’s body parts: penis, vagina. 
  • Use common terms for urination and bowel movements:  pee, poop are easy to use without being cutesy.
  • Say things like, “Let’s try to pee before we leave the house,”; “We’re going to try to pee before we leave the house,”;“We pee before bed,”; “Your body might be ready to pee.”

“Look, you peed!”  or “You knew there was pee in your body and you peed!”
The goal is to encourage your child to recognize his or her own feelings about pee and poop and support your child as she learns to use the potty.

Toileting is a big control point for kids—if they know you are trying to control or you are judging them with praise or disappointment, they can create issues of withholding, peeing in clothes, etc.   Keep letting your child know that his body is ready to pee and poop in the potty—don’t equate it with age or being “big” or “little”.

Kids may be scared about flushing because of the noise, the speed of the flush, or the idea that they are flushing something from their own body away. 

Read books about going to the potty and change the words so they fit your family’s language (ie. we say “pee” instead of “pee-pee”).  I have also found it helpful to make changes in the books, so other people who may read them aloud can use the same words you do.

If your child doesn’t seem that into it, don’t push.  Keep it on the radar with books and modeling on your part.  When you think your child is ready to try, phrase the invitation in a way that is hard to reject—“Come try to pee in the potty while I wash my hands, and then we’ll be ready to leave (read a book, play, anything).

Using the toilet on the go
As your child is learning to use the toilet, having a portable potty can be very helpful.  The smallest (easiest) is the Potette which is about $10 or the new somewhat sturdier Potette Plus.  Both come with fancy bags (plastic bags with a maxi-padesque liner) but you can use scented diaper disposal bags as replacements.


Be thoughtful about television and dvds

Television is part of many children’s lives.  Be mindful of which shows you watch, and as much as possible watch with your child and talk about what you both see.  Take advantage of free “on-demand” channels and if you have one, a DVR or Tivo. 


Note sibling relationships in books and television shows, and make appropriate choices.  If a character on a television show is always teasing a sibling, your child is going to see that happen, over and over.  It’s the same with friendships and parent relationships-- if television shows spend most of the time demonstrating poor behavior, the five minute wrap up at the end of the show may be lost in comparison.

The jury is still out about "educational"television. Some studies seem to suggest it may be no more helpful in terms of behavior than other television (seeing children not share for 15 minutes and wrap up with "Oh, we should share!" and a song, still modeled more behavior around not sharing. Safe dvds to choose are music concerts, like Laurie Berkner, They Might Be Giants, Oy Baby, and others.
Create easy guidelines for younger kids to follow—one show before breakfast, or before dinner, rather than a certain amount per week that has to be monitored.

A great resource to help you choose television, film, apps, and more for kids is Common Sense Media.  You can register on their site for customized emails and suggestions.


Discipline inclusively.

I believe that staying in the situation and working through it is an essential skill we can model for our children.  If you or your child needs a cooling off period, try to sit together.  If you have had to separate children—sit between them or first go to the child who has been hurt.

If we want to help our children become independent, polite, kind, caring, loving, dynamic people we need to give them chances to form that personality.  As parents we model all our behavior—the way we talk to each other, to our children, to cab drivers and waiters and friends.

What are reasonable expectations?

Even though it’s hard to admit, the main reason for our kids to behave cannot be because they want to please us or because they are afraid of being punished.

Ways to help your child
Remember that once your child is “acting out” he is usually already feeling bad about something. 

Role Play
Sometimes you can switch roles with your child:  “You be the mommy and I’ll be the little girl” can be helpful—especially because your child knows you well, and it can be a lot of fun to hear them be you (and it can also be shocking—sometimes when you hear what you really sound like it can be a reminder to be more thoughtful with language).

Puppet Role Play
Sometimes you want to bring the situation away from the people involved.  This is a good time to bring puppets, or stuffed animals, or even make your hands talk.  Have the puppets play out what happened—I can almost guarantee your child will ask you to repeat it. 

Remember, you do not (and probably should not) SOLVE the situation for your child.  Let him solve it, or let him have things to think about.  Allowing children to process life without creating the meaning for them (ie. making final statements like, “see, that’s why we don’t play on the stairs” or “I told you this would end with someone crying” take away their learning)

Larry Cohen, the writer of Playful Parenting describes puppet play well.

Ways to sit and help your child cool down
If your child is thrashing about or very upset, sit on the floor and put her in the V of your legs, her back to your front.  You aren’t asking for eye contact, but you can wrap your arms about her and hold her close.

Sit with your child and use your hand to sweep down your child’s arm or leg or back—it’s called brushing—it can be soothing for both of you.

Time Outs
Time Outs are a short term solution. Think about the message you are sending with a time-out.  Work through it—“you misbehaved so now you need to be alone”?  When your child is alone, do you think he or she is calmly thinking about his or her actions and how to behave better the next time?  Probably not.  Children in time out feel isolated, sad, and as they get older they feel angry (at you and if applicable, the other child that was involved). The cortisol that the brain produces basically prohibits development—the brain is in flight mode.


You need to keep your child in the situation and learn to work it out. This doesn't mean sometimes you don't give yourself or your child a moment to breathe, or separate a child who is being dangerous, but time-out encourage (momentary) isolation and leaving a difficult situation-- which is the opposite of what we are trying to teach our children.  Children need skills to draw on when adults are not available—we can model these skills with them in difficult situations.  It means staying relatively calm under pressure—that is our job.

Is your child having temper tantrums ?


Deal with tough issues.

Talking about death with children can be calm and perhaps easier than you might expect.  The need arises on a person to person basis.  Keep in mind, children do not have a reference point until you create one—and you can give your child the gift of understanding death as a lifecycle event—tragic in some cases, sad and unexpected in others, sad but expected. 

Understanding your own beliefs about death and dying are a good place to start.


See what your child already knows, and answer the exact question that is asked.  Many times children ask questions about tough subjects that are within the realm of what they are ready to hear.

When Dinosaurs Die by Brown and Brown explains all kinds of death using pictures of dinosaur like creatures dressed like humans.  There are tiny dinosaurs in the NICU, a dinosaur who has been in an accident, and older dinosaurs to explain all different kinds of death.  You can choose which parts to read to younger children and the pictures have many details to explain and discuss what you need for your personal situation. 
Many families have older relatives that are being treated for various illnesses.  In our family, one grandparent is being treated for cancer, and has been for a long time.  While awful, my daughter has a child’s perspective on cancer.  She isn’t shocked by hair loss, tiredness, or a cancelled visit.  She isn’t pressured with too much information either—some things we say:


  • Grandma has a certain sick called cancer.
  • The kind of medicine for cancer is very special, and it will make her hair fall out.

Questions my daughter has asked, and our answers:

Child: Grandma, how did you get sick?
What Grandma said: I don’t know.  Sometimes when you get older things happen in your body. 

Later, my daughter asked me again, and I said:  In life we try to be as good to our bodies and minds as possible. Sometimes people get sick and we don’t know why.

If you know another child who is sick the questions are similar, but closer to home.  We don’t really know how some people get sick, and we don’t always really know if they are going to get better. 


Promote healthy, happy sibling relationships.

The difference between one child and two seems exponential.  The second time around you know what to do with a baby, but you realize (as long as your baby is sleeping and healthy) that the baby is  (basically) the easy part.  Having a second baby is a major shift—here are things you can do to ease the transition. Keep in mind this is a major shift for the entire family—it should feel different, fabulous, and at times, difficult.

There is no one way to prepare, but you can help frame the entire experience.  You are welcoming another child into your family—it will be a shock for your existing child no matter what the age, how excited he or she seems, how much help you have.  On this note, your excitement can still tip towards your first child—the one who is here, now. 

Before your baby is born, think ahead—you want to make as few changes to the grounding parts of your daily routine with your first child.  For example, when I was about three months pregnant with our second child, my husband made bath time his “special time” with our first—allowing for a smooth transition when the baby was born—I knew I would have bath time to nurse, etc. and then be able to be fully present for bedtime snuggles with my first.

Remembering the power of autonomy—while your first child may ask you to do things for him once the baby is born, children who have power feel confident—look for things your child can do now (this is a good reminder for everyone, me included, even if you are not having another child).  You might move child safe cups/plates/bowls/utensils to a cabinet your child can reach, or put some low hooks on the wall to hang pajamas or coats.  Put crayons and paper in a basket so your child can draw when she wants, and doesn’t have to ask for help (though she may, and you can!). 


Now that your baby is here,  a few things you can say:

  • It’s different now that we have the baby—now our family is mom, dad, Lily, and Ethan.
  • Sometimes it’s hard to have a brother.
  • People get very excited when they see babies—don’t they!

As always less can be more:  when you say something to your child, pause, and give it time.  You may be surprised what he comes up with, and how long it might take.

Even if your child can’t speak, you can name the emotion she might be feeling

  • You’re upset—I said we were going to the park and we haven’t left yet.
  • You’re frustrated—you built that tower and Clara knocked it down.
  • Look at that smile, it feels good when your brother holds your hand!
  • “Sometimes it’s hard to have a sister/brother.”
  • “You didn’t like when Ella scratched you.”
  • “What do you want to tell Ella?”
  •  “We’re out for a walk—Mommy, James and Alice!”

Try to avoid
Telling your child he is “The big boy” and “shouldn’t do/want x, y, or z” When a new baby comes on the scene and you are only a year or two away from that stage yourself, regression is natural, you don't want to be told you can't do it-- that's almost a set up!
Saying, “She’s your sister, you have to love her!”

Spend time alone with each child, but don’t go on and on about it being alone time.
I think the way you see your children and your family as the most important part.  You are a team, you need to encourage them to like and love each other indirectly—which means using language they can use with each other, encouraging them to work together (rather than against one another, ever).

Note sibling relationships in books and television shows, and make appropriate choices.  If a character on a television show is always teasing a sibling, your child is going to see that happen, over and over.  Some books try to solidify the differences between the older and younger sibling, implying in some ways that if the big sibling is neat, the other is messy, the little one loud, the older one quiet.  It is our role to let our children’s personalities unfold, and not type or label them at 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 years old.

See more in babying about welcoming more children to your family.

about sibling relationships in older children!


How can you prepare your child for an emergency, like getting lost or separated from you?


Early in September, I followed a 3 year old girl today in Whole Foods who was walking around yelling, Mommy!  Mommy! 

A few things struck me--
1. the girl was moving really quickly
2. she was moving really randomly
3. almost everybody was ignoring her

I was with my own three year old.  I said to the girl, “Are you looking for your mommy?” but she was nervous, she didn’t respond, and kept running.  I said, “I’m going to stay with you until you find your mommy,”.  After about 60 long seconds Mommy was found.  The mom and I made eye contact-- nodded at each other-- it was over.  I wanted to say, it’s happened to me too-- I leaned down at a Barnes & Noble once to pick up a book that my daughter dropped-- and when I stood up-- she was gone-- it took me more than a minute to find her through the stacks-- and because I was keeping my eye on the escalator and elevator to make sure she wasn’t exiting-- it can happen instantly!

To help your child, make sure she knows what to do in an emergency.  It doesn’t mean she’ll actually do it, but at least you’ll have talked about it.  You can suggest the moment she doesn’t see you she should


  • stay where she is, in one place
  • look for a mom or other woman-- a young child can easily recognize another mother, and statistically a woman is more likely to stay with a child until help comes, and statistically security guards, etc. are not always safe people-- they aren’t screened necessarily well and people with power issues tend to choose jobs that put them in positions of power. 
  • help your child practice saying, “I’m lost,” or, “I need help.”

Strangers aren’t dangerous as a rule-- adults talk to strangers all the time-- and strangers can help your child in an emergency.  The next time you talk to a stranger, ask your child,

  • “Do you know why I was talking to that woman?”
  • Describe the details you noticed that helped you decide to talk to her

Help your child practice guessing which strangers would be the safest.  We play a game on the bus-- if you needed help and had to talk to someone, who would you choose?  Why?  When you can, practice talking to safe strangers.  Let your child ask for something at a store or pay for what you are buying. 

A great book to read about children and safety is Gavin de Becker’s Protecting The Gift


When your child is angry with you.


The book  The Parents We Mean To Be , by Richard Weissbourd addresses that exact idea-- How do we actually parent the way we want?  Because, as we all have experience, your reactions to things in heated moments, or stressful moments, don't always bring out your best behavior, and certainly at times don't achieve all you wished!  The most important take away from this book, for all of us who are used to acknowledging feelings of our children, is this idea “It’s also important in most cases to avoid-- when children are temporarily angry at us-- being both a parent (a legitimate object of anger) and a therapist (someone who is “naming” or analyzing feelings of anger)." (p.55)  This is a bit shift for people who are used to helping children name feelings in the moment. 

So, what do you do?  Overtime, the goal for your child (and all of us!) is to figure out what to do when you are angry, how to express it, how to deal with it, how to work through it.  A time when your child isn’t angry is a good time to talk about what (s)he does when provoked, what it feels like, what else is an option if that doesn’t work. Some children like alone time, some like to be in the same room but not talk, some like to stomp or say angry words, some may lash out at you or a sibling, and some may tantrum.

If your child is lashing out at you or another child physically, you must step in and keep everyone safe.  Firmly say, “I need to keep (myself, people in our family, the name of the child) safe.”  You can put something else in their path (I’ve never seen a child hit a pillow but some people say it works) or try to hold your child.  You can suggest taking a break in another part of the apartment or house.  “Seems like we need cooling down time,” or “Seems like we should take a break,” still allows your child to be angry at you without being destructive.

If a child is angry at you and tantruming and might hurt himself, the V-position might be best.  Sit down and try to hold your child’s back to your front (so you both face the same way).  You can brush your hand along your child’s body or arm, firmly.  You don’t have to talk.

When it’s all over, you can go back to acknowledging.  “You were really angry before.”  And go from there.  You can point out what you saw as helpful coping skills, “I noticed you went in your room for some alone time,” or “After you yelled a bit you seemed to be calmer.”  You can talk about what it felt like to be angry.  Figuring out how to deal with anger can be life-long.  Talking about it makes it clear that it is something that is important and worth talking about.


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